Wilton school officials are considering participating in a CT program that gives students in lower-performing school districts the opportunity to attend schools in neighboring, higher-performing districts.
The Open Choice program, implemented in Connecticut in 1997 and overseen by the State Department of Education, was just expanded in the current CT General Assembly legislative session, making Norwalk and Danbury now eligible to be sending districts. That makes Wilton a possible choice for students in those districts, if the Wilton Board of Education approves the town’s participation in the program.
Members of the BOE heard about the program from Dr. Kevin Smith at their April 29 meeting [editor’s note: prior to the legislation’s passage in June]. He described the program as “a voluntary district public school attendance program that proposes to, one improve academic achievement, two reduce racial, ethnic, and economic isolation, or preserve racial and ethnic balance, and three provide a choice of education programs.”
The legislation grants 50 students in each of the two areas to enroll in a surrounding school district. Students can apply to be selected for Open Choice through a lottery system.
Dr. Chip Dumais, the executive director of Cooperative Educational Services, coordinates the program in the region and spoke at the meeting.
“For Norwalk, you’d essentially be doing Darien, Wilton, New Canaan, Weston, Westport,” he said, adding that Weston and Westport already accept Open Choice students from Bridgeport.
Smith said if the BOE adopts Open Choice, he would propose that the program target enrolling younger students, who would have a longer educational opportunity in the Wilton school system.
“Open Choice students are treated as though they are a resident of the town and therefore would have the right once they start to move right on through to graduation and participate in any other activities that a Wilton resident student would participate in,” Dumais said.
In terms of costs, there would be no additional marginal cost to the district to enroll an Open Choice student if there is vacancy in a classroom. In fact, Wilton would receive funding from the state if it accepts students from sending districts.
“The State Department of Education provides a grant of $3,000 per each out-of-district student if the number of out-of-district students is less than 2% of the total population of the receiving district, and then the per-pupil grant increases if the number of Open Choice students grows beyond 2% of the receiving districts total student population,” Smith said.
The legislation mandates that student transportation will be provided by the state, although Dumais added that one of the gaps in the program is that there is no transportation that accommodates out-of-district students who participate in after-school activities. He noted that Open Choice students who take part in after-school activities find their own transportation home.
In addition, if there are any special education costs for out-of-district students above whatever the state funds, those would be covered by the sending district.
The Open Choice program has been in place for a number of years, particularly in areas surrounding Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport, and Smith said that receiving districts see it as a positive.
“Districts have taken advantage of the opportunity, particularly when they’re operating in communities that don’t have a great deal of diversity as a tool to try to increase the diversity of their student population and increase the exposure to different backgrounds to students who live in town,” he explained.
According to Dumais, research conducted about 10 years ago with all Bridgeport students showed that academic performance was higher in the students who were participating in the Open Choice program.
Enrollment numbers in Wilton would be the driving determinant once the district determines there is space and decides whether to take part in the program.
The district would notify the CT SDE how many spots in a given grade are available to open up to students taking part in the lottery. With the program limiting sending districts to 50 participating students, and with multiple surrounding towns open to accepting students, Smith estimated that there would be only “probably a couple” new students enrolling each year.
Siblings of current Open Choice students enrolled in Wilton would have priority over other lottery participants.
Once enrolled, Open Choice students would then be able to continue attending Wilton schools through their academic careers, until graduation.
Districts are not obliged to participate at all, nor do they have any obligation to continue to participate once they start. However, if Wilton does start enrolling Open Choice students and then decides to no longer be part of the program, it would need to allow any students who have already been accepted to continue through until graduation.
Dumais also noted that the state has been consistent with funding, fulfilling what it has promised to pay since the program started 24 years ago. “I would anticipate that it would continue just as it has.”
He also compared it to the A Better Chance program that Wilton already participates in as something similar.
Board Chair Deborah Low explained to Dumais why several board members asked enrollment-related questions.
“Our enrollment has been sort of declining but leveling off at the elementary school. And then with COVID and some parents withdrawing kids, but on the other hand, how many of those are going to return? And then the real estate market has gone crazy, and we don’t yet know the full impact on enrollment until we’re going to see it in August. So that’s something we have to absolutely watch.”
Dumais encouraged the board officials to understand all implications of their decision. “In any kind of situation like this, it’s tough to be the only one. So if it’s a choice between one or two, I would urge you to go with two.”
The board concluded that it will continue to discuss the Open Choice program and if it will be implemented in the school district. Smith noted that the board will gather information from surrounding districts and continue to follow enrollment trends.
Dumais said that the fall of 2021 is a good time for the board to identify fall 2022 seats because the lottery to determine the Open Choice students happens around January.